The history of the ivory trade
Ivory has been a precious material for millennia, but the scale of the industry has grown exponentially over time
An Ancient Art Form
Circa 40,000 years ago
Ice Age humans in northern Europe were using mammoth ivory and boar tusks long before the rise of the African ivory trade, as evidenced by figurines like the ‘Venus of Hohle Fels’.
An ivory Renaissance
Ivory is used for luxury goods like book covers and religious artefacts throughout the Medieval period. It sees a resurgence in the mid-13th century, with the focus shifting to artistic carvings.
rise of the ‘white Gold’ Trade
As European merchants begin to establish shipping routes to and from western Africa, elephant tusks become a staple cargo, alongside gold, spices and slaves.
From luxury to Everyday
While still a premium material used for high-society objets d’art, portrait miniatures and instruments, ivory also begins to appear in more mass-produced items such as buttons and combs.
the tipping point
By now 100,000 elephants are being killed a year to fuel the demand for ivory. In 1989, CITES adds African elephants to its Appendix I species, putting a total ban on trading elephant ivory internationally.
A decade after the ban is introduced CITES allows a one-off sale of almost 50 tons of ivory to Japan, where the material is used in traditional objects like fans, ornaments and netsuke.